Atletico Madrid have stumbled through the season so far, taking one step forward and then rapidly one step back.
Beating Manchester United would leave them dreaming of a first ever Champions League; defeat would reopen the debate as to whether Diego Simeone’s era is coming to an end.
The group stages were typical of the way the season has gone. They were on the canvas after losing twice to Liverpool and then at home to Milan. Then the away win at Porto that sent them through was hailed as one of their greatest European nights.
Whether Atletico beat Manchester United will have a huge baring on Diego Simeone’s future
Atletico’s win at Porto that sent them through was one of their greatest European nights
In the league recently they were terrible away to Barcelona, making Xavi’s side look like Barca peak-Pep. But then in the next game, they beat Getafe with 10 men, scoring the winning goal in the last minute.
In their last home game they were beaten 1-0 by bottom club Levante and after whistles for the players, the club’s top suits made a very public visit to the training ground to back Simeone. Four days later, they had beaten Osasuna 3-0 away and they were back to being world-beaters.
The truth is they aren’t world-beaters any more. The defensive solidity that twice made them LaLiga champions and took them to two Champions League finals in Simeone’s 10 years in charge has evaporated.
Goalkeeper Jan Oblak has let in more goals than in any of his previous seasons and suddenly he looks ordinary.
Their best three defenders from last season have either left the club (Kieran Trippier) or struggled with injury (Stefan Savic and Jose Gimenez). The Uruguayan was whistled in that last home game during that defeat to Levante.
His partner Regina Iafolla spoke up on social media after the game saying that he had been bedridden with Covid in the run-up to the match and deserved more respect for having returned so soon. There were banners showing support for him at the club’s training ground on Monday.
Club owner Miguel Angel Gil said after that impromptu visit to the club’s training ground that the team were now in a mini-league of six sides vying for a Champions League place for next season.
If Atletico fail to finish in the top four then the lost revenue will leave them struggling to pay Simeone his £16.7m (€20m) net per season. The club have denied they have lined up impressive Athletic Bilbao coach Marcelino to replace Simeone should he leave but they would not be doing their job if they did not have a post-Simeone plan in place.
Atletico goalkeeper Jan Oblak has let in more goals than in any of his previous seasons
Atletico have denied they have lined up Athletic Bilbao coach Marcelino to replace Simeone
What is clear is that the 51-year-old coach has earned the right to leave when he wants to and with two years left on that lucrative contract, it looks unlikely he will walk away unless things become really bad. Or really good: winning the Champions League might also see him quit on a high.
‘I think he will still be here,’ president Enrique Cerezo told Cadena Ser when asked about next season. ‘He is a huge asset for us and it’s people from the outside that maybe don’t want him to continue. It’s not crossed our mind that he will not be our coach.’
For now, the waters are calm again after that win on Saturday. And Simeone at least has a striker in form although its another facet of such a strange season that the top scorer is the fourth-choice forward.
Angel Correa started the season behind Luis Suarez, Antoine Griezmann and Joao Felix but in just 16 starts he has scored 11 goals. He will start on Wednesday night, the big question is who plays alongside him. Griezmann is only just back from a hamstring injury sustained at the start of the year and will come off the bench.
Angel Correa has scored 11 goals in just 16 starts and will start for Atletico on Wednesday night
Either one of star strikers Luis Suarez or Joao Felix will be Correa’s partner against United
That leaves either Luis Suarez or Joao Felix as Correa’s partner. Simeone practiced with Felix and Correa in training on Monday. Whether that was because Suarez was doing a recovery session after playing an hour at the weekend or whether it’s the plan for United remains to be seen.
If Felix starts it will once again be hailed as his big chance to begin to show why Atletico paid £104m for him in 2019. He has three league goals this season and looks to still not have convinced his coach.
The Simeone-Felix dynamic sums up Atletico. The hard-nosed manager who turned the perpetual underachievers into European heavyweights, and the skilful but slight record-signing who really needs the team to play another way if he is to succeed.
Their slightly awkward marriage has been a feature of recent years and Felix was on the bench for most of the run-in last season when Simeone confounded critics again by winning the league.
The Simeone-Felix (left) dynamic sums up Atletico Madrid’s inconsistencies at the moment
If Atletico can knock out United (pic, Ralf Rangnick and Cristiano Ronaldo) then Simeone will be reinvigorated
He is currently showing his softer side in a biopic television series documenting his life in Madrid. Nobody ever imagined when he took over at the start of January 2012 that he would still be standing a decade on.
It’s a modern miracle by Spanish standards, and Atletico Madrid’s who once sacked six coaches in one season when the current owner’s father Jesus Gil was in charge.
If Atletico can knock out United then Simeone will be reinvigorated to keep going towards the elusive European Cup. Defeat and all the old doubts will resurface as the club scrambles to just stay in the competition for next season.